Coast Guard interviewing crewmembers in USS Fitzgerald investigation

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(TOKYO) — The U.S. Coast Guard is moving ahead with its investigation into the collision last week between the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald and containership ACX Crystal that left seven American sailors dead.

“Coast Guard investigators boarded both ships yesterday (Tuesday), took a look at the damage and gathered imagery,” Coast Guard Lt. Scott Carr said in an email from Japan. “These visits will help set the scene for the investigators who are scheduled to conduct interviews of crewmembers of both vessels today."

The investigation comes amid intense scrutiny of the accident, which occurred early on Saturday morning roughly 56 nm southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. The 505-foot Fitzgerald was struck on the starboard side by the bow of the 720-foot ACX Crystal.

The containership’s bow was damaged in multiple places. The destroyer sustained extensive damage to its starboard superstructure and deck. There was also a “large puncture” below the waterline.

“The ship suffered severe damage, rapidly flooding three large compartments that included one machinery room and two berthing areas for 116 crew,” Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin said in a June 18 press conference. “The commanding officer's cabin was also directly hit, trapping the CO inside.”

Cmdr. Bryce Benson was transported to a shoreside hospital and is recovering, along with two other injured sailors. 

The Navy said the collision occurred at about 0230, although vessel trackline data suggests it occurred about 50 minutes earlier. "The Coast Guard investigation team is aware of a discrepancy in the time and that is something will be looking into as just part of taking in all the information," Carr said.

A Navy 7th Fleet spokesman has not responded to emailed questions about the incident.

The Coast Guard is leading the American investigation at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, according to an NTSB spokesman. The Japanese coast guard, the Japan Transport Safety Board and Philippine authorities also are investigating the incident. ACX Crystal sails under a Philippines flag.

Carr said the U.S. Coast Guard is well suited to handle the investigation. It has solid relationships with Japanese authorities and the Navy but also has the ability to lead a complete and unbiased probe, he said. The Coast Guard already had investigators stationed in Japan as part of the Coast Guard Activities Far East contingent.

The Navy identified the seven sailors who died in the accident as Dakota Kyle Rigsby, 19, from Palmyra, Va.; Shingo Alexander Douglass, 25, from San Diego, Calif.; Ngoc T. Truong Huynh, 25, from Oakville, Conn.; Noe Hernandez, 26, from Weslaco, Texas; Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, 23, from Chula Vista, Calif.; Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe, Md.; and Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio.

“Unfortunately we don't have the details regarding the conditions during their final moments,” Aucoin said during the news conference, “but hope that the investigation may shed some light on that matter.”

The Navy and Coast Guard declined to speculate how long the investigation would last. There is no indication at this point whether the Coast Guard will convene a Marine Board of Investigation process like the one that occurred following the El Faro tragedy.

“Right now we are in a preliminary investigation,” Carr said. “The Coast Guard’s goal is to efficiently collect information and determine the causal factors of the accident. Is that going to go forward into some other investigation? I don’t know.”

By Professional Mariner Staff